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Globalized Science in a Deglobalizing World

Published on: February 17, 2020
Published in: Hastings Bioethics Forum, Science and Society

The arrest of Harvard chemist and nanobiologist Charles Lieber on charges of lying about his research funding from China encapsulates two phenomena currently in tension: the global nature of modern science and attempts to nationalize the fruits of science.

The post-cold war period was briefly an era of U.S. domination in nearly every respect, from military power to finance. But the past few years appear to be a process of overturning the liberal international order composed of institutions following World War II. Among the beneficiaries of those arrangements was a global scientific establishment. One measure of this commonality: the establishment of English (rooted in British imperialism) as the predominant common language of science.

Ever since the Enlightenment “natural philosophers” have been members of an invisible college of correspondents, trading books with marginalia through the emerging European postal system. In the twenty-first century, supercharged by the Internet, science is a global invisible college in which theories, methods, and data are instantly shareable.  Pick up any major scientific journal and you’ll note the scale and diversity of contributors, very often collaborators on the same important paper. Conferences in the largest fields draw tens of thousands of attendees where elbows rub and partnerships are explored. Exchanges of laboratory personnel are common.

Not surprisingly, a distinct global culture of science has developed. North American and Asian scientists often find they have more in common with each other than with their neighbors. Combined with a more or less overt disdain for politics, the global science subculture attracts a measure of suspicion from state authorities, or at least a watchful eye.

To understand the power of knowledge creation, follow the money. Grants and contracts seek to attract top talent from wherever they are. That’s because the stakes are high. Trillions of dollars in public and private investment are motivated by higher and lower concerns, from the creation of new knowledge, improved infrastructure, more efficient uses and new sources of energy, better health, and great wealth. National prestige and national security, too, are often on the line. No military establishment wants to be a laggard in new technology, though few can afford to innovate.

Although the U.S. still leads the world by far in papers published and cited (the latter an especially significant measure of scientific influence), China is intent on catching up. Especially in fields like medical science that can benefit from research involving many participants, it helps to have not only centralized state resources and fewer restrictions on experimentation than the West, as well as nearly 20 percent of the world’s population.

Since the middle of the seventeenth century, the growth of knowledge has also benefitted immeasurably from the expansion of trade, finance, transportation, communication, and the system of sovereign states that recognized a national interest in science and its products. The fitful advance of the international system since then almost perfectly tracks the growth of knowledge. Although the U.K. is still a leader in science, the possible post-Brexit fracturing of the “United” Kingdom, on top of its vexed relationship with the Continent, promises only to boost Germany in the rankings, now fourth and soon to be third behind the U.S. and China.

Rising nationalism poses serious challenges for science. With new restrictions on the sharing of scientific data, the Chinese government is sparking concerns that it will assert excessive control in fields like genetics where raw data can now be combined with fast computers and complex algorithms to generate new understanding of heritable disease. The Lieber case is only the most spectacular. The FBI has stepped up monitoring of Chinese scientists for intellectual property violations and, through the National Institutes of Health, undisclosed conflicts of interest. Several Chinese scientists at major universities have lost their funding, and others have been expelled. For its part, the U.S. government is considering ways to restrict the flow of American technology to China, measures that may backfire by forcing research and development elsewhere.

Besides the uncertainties about the effects on scientific progress itself, the retreat from globalization raises questions about the scientific community’s ability to govern itself. Embarrassed by the scandal about gene-edited babies in China, both the World Health Organization and national science academies are developing new standards. So is the Chinese government itself. Despite its undeniable record of domestic oppression– stability being good for the wealth the country craves– post-Mao China has become a prime supporter of the international order. On a recent visit to China, I was struck by science and policy elites’ interest in global science governance. But science nationalism in a deglobalized world would make it harder to gain the trust needed for both international agreement and enforcement of scientific norms.

Especially considering the impending crises wrought by climate change, it’s hard to see the long-term benefit for human survival, let alone flourishing, in a world that undermines global science.

Jonathan D. Moreno, PhD, , at Hastings Center Fellow, is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches bioethics and history of science. He is the author with Amy Gutmann, of Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven but Nobody Wants to Die: Bioethics and the Transformation of Healthcare in America (Norton/Liveright, 2019). Twitter: @PennProf.

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The Hastings Center has never shied away from the toughest ethical challenges faced by society.